On Saturday, the social media streams were full of updates on the shooting in Arizona mixed lots of conjecture about just who was responsible (interestingly, it apparently wasn’t the guy with the gun, but politicians and commentators of various persuasions). And in my FB and Twitter stream, anyway, I found lots of entreaties to pastors to say something about this tragedy, and plenty of pastors scrambling to rewrite their sermons to address this pressing issue. Evidently, the poor, simple people who fill the pews are wandering around the moral landscape, entirely unsure about what to make of these events. Evidently, they are in desperate need of a professional religious person to make sense of it all. Apparently, God is waiting and watching to see what preachers will say about all of this.
I certainly understand the need to address pressing social issues– especially those which have turned so violent and deadly. I’m not advocating churches or preachers ignore what it happening in the world around us. Indeed, churches and other religious institutions need to be engaging with our world, and embarking on resolutions to curtail our evil and violence, rather than keeping our heads buried in the sand. At the same time, I’m uneasy with the assumptions present in these entreaties toward holy speech. To me, they are more than a little disconcerting.
To parishoners, I have some questions:
1. Do you really want to be a parishoner? Or even worse, a ‘lay person’? You are intelligent, engaged people who are constantly, thoughtfully interacting with your world. Applying your faith and religious outlook to it. Using your God-given abilities at critical thinking to consider the ethical landscape. Are you sure you want to shut up and merely absorb what some cloistered person tells you? Don’t you have something to contribute to the conversation?
2. What do you expect someone to say? What can be said? “Don’t kill people who you disagree with?” “Don’t speak unkindly toward others?” “Don’t forget that there are souls inside the idealogues you disagree with?” These seem to be obvious truths, made all the more lifeless by our constant harping about them. Especially when we conveniently forget that they apply to us as well as the people who we’ve set ourselves against.
1. Please don’t overestimate yourself. Yes, you’re intelligent. Moreover, you have special training, and probably an advanced degree or two. But are you really the needle in your church’s moral compass? I heard pastors in my own city of Washington DC bearing huge burdens for ‘what to say’ to the people in their churches– especially those who work on Capitol Hill. People who presumably deal with angry letters, crazy constituents, and death threats on a regular basis. Do they really need you to make sense of it? Or might you perhaps allow them to speak about this situation which they clearly understand, and deal with on a daily basis?
2. Be careful what you wish for. This is heady stuff. Being the mouthpiece for God is intoxicating, and having people look to you for insight and answers is flattering. But what if you can’t quite pull it off (since you’re only human)? What if your carefully chosen words come up short? What if you don’t speak to one (or more) of your parishoner’s satisfaction? If you’re going to be the mouthpiece for God, you’d better be equally flawless. Otherwise, you’d be wise to hand over the mic while you still have the chance.
3. The tragic events in Arizona are horrifying, but they are not isolated. Moral atrocities occur all over our country, and even more in our world. So where do these entreaties to “say something!” end? What are the proper limits to our ethical concern? If we only comment on U.S. or political or domestic issues, we’ll appear to be more than a little self-interested and xenophobic.